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Child Bullies Are Three Times More Likely to Have Mental Health Problems

A study presented at the national conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that children who bully others are at least three times as likely to have an underlying mental health disorder.

--by Joann Jovinelly

The Gist

Fifteen-year-old Felicia Garcia jumped to her death in front of an oncoming train at Staten Island’s Huguenot Station this week. The last entry on her Twitter account revealed that she “gave up,” tired of months of endless bullying by some of her high school classmates. Friends at the school who witnessed Garcia’s experiences described them as “torture.”

Bullying is a form of youth violence defined as repetitive and intentional aggression by one person or a group of people who feel empowered over their victim. Bullying behaviors are often  significantly different depending on the gender of the bully: male students often engage in direct verbal taunting and physical violence, while female students use strategies to embarrass, humiliate, and/or severely ostracize their victims.    

In 2011, a national survey of high school students found that 20 percent were the victims of bullying in the past year, statistics that are slightly lower than U.S. Department of Education findings for 2006-2007. In that survey, 8 million students, or 32 percent, said they'd experienced bullying.       

Unfortunately, Garcia’s suicide is not unusual. It adds to the evidence that bullying (and cyber-bullying) in schools is out of control. Attention is most often focused on the victims of bullying, but a new study presented this week at the national conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that physicians, administrators, teachers, and parents take a more careful look at the mental status of the bullies themselves. 

Researchers reviewed information provided by parents and guardians on mental health and bullying in the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health, which included data from 64,000 children. In that survey, more than 15 percent of children were identified as bullies—and were at least three times as likely to have an existing mental health disorder as their peers.

The Expert Take

According to study author Frances G. Turcotte-Benedict, M.D., a Brown University master’s of public health student and a fellow at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, “Bullies are often described as aggressive, dominating, and impulsive. [They] have been found to be at an increased risk for substance abuse, academic problems, and are more likely to engage in violent behaviors as teens and adults.”

In the Children’s Health Survey population, 16.6 percent of children had been diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder. Not surprisingly, many students suffered from depression (3.31 percent), anxiety (2.89 percent), and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD (2.82 percent).

“Depression is strongly associated with more difficulty in controlling impulses,” says Turcotte-Benedict, “[which] can often translate as bullying or lead to bullying behaviors.” 

However, the largest group of students with mental health disorders—6 percent—had a lesser-known condition called Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) or conduct disorder, one associated with a six-fold increase in the likelihood of becoming a bully.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder is a condition described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as “a persistent pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behavior, or vindictiveness lasting at least six months.” Those students are described as spiteful, disrespectful, and even deliberately annoying, with a repeated pattern of blaming others for their behavior.

The Takeaway

Ultimately, more emphasis needs to be placed on teachers and administrators to not only provide support to victims of bullying, but to the bullies themselves. 

“These findings highlight the importance of providing psychological support not only to victims of bullying, but to bullies as well,” says Turcotte-Benedict. “In order to create successful anti-bullying prevention and intervention programs, there is a need for more research to understand the relationship more thoroughly, and especially, the risk profile of childhood bullies.”

Other Research

A 2010 study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics reported that “Oppositional defiant behavior is a co-morbid in more than half of all ADHD cases” and called the need to examine that potential relationship “essential.”

Other studies have examined the links between ODD, bullying, and adult anti-social behaviors.

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Tags: Latest Studies & Research , Awareness

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